Stars begin offseason moves, but questions remain

Courtesy MN Stars FC

The soccer team picked up the options for a baker's dozen of players - but questions remain about several key free agents.

The Minnesota Stars had 18 players with contract options for 2013 - and 13 of those 18 are coming back in 2013.

Key among the returning players are the team's excellent starting goalkeeper, Matt Van Oekel, and three-quarters of the team's first-choice back four - center back Connor Tobin and fullbacks Justin Davis and Brian Kallman. Further forward, the team also retained the services of defensive midfielder Kentaro Takada, who most often played a holding role in front of the back four, and winger Miguel Ibarra, who spent much of the year bombing up and down the right wing, creating chances with his speed.

While nothing is officially signed, defender / assistant coach / jersey maker / jack of all trades Kevin Friedland is also likely to return in 2013. Friedland's contract was up at the end of 2012, but with all of his duties with the team, one suspects that he could more or less write his own ticket. He said, via text, that "right now the plan is to be back," so barring something out of the ordinary, he will also return.

Also returning are defender Ernest Tchoupe, midfielders Michael Reed, Edi Buro, and Kevin Venegas, and forwards Nate Polak and Travis Wall. Five players - defenders Evan Sassano and Gino Mauro, and midfielders Shawn Chin, Fuad Ibrahim, and Andy Lorei - had their options declined, and will not be returning.

As for the free agents, the Stars lost their first free-agent of the off-season when midfielder Neil Hlavaty signed with FC Edmonton for, in his words, "a change in my career." Hlavaty had held down his role in central midfield for the past three years with the club, but moved onto Edmonton for a chance in scenery and a chance to perhaps take the next step.

These, then, are the certainties. The more important questions about the Stars have to do with free agents - with two questions in particular coming to mind.

1. Will center back, NASL first-team All-Star, and team captain Kyle Altman return?

Altman has taken deferrals from medical school to play soccer, but has been rumored to be indecisive about returning for another season in 2013 rather than moving on. According to Brian Quarstad at Inside Minnesota Soccer, if Altman was to choose to play again next season, he'd have to reapply to school and re-take his entrance exams, making this offseason a difficult choice.

2. Who will play up front for the Stars?

Amani Walker, the team's leading scorer in 2012 but a free agent, has had discussions with head coach Manny Lagos and the Stars front office, but is still weighing his options, and doesn't expect to make any concrete decisions, possibly until the new year. With the MLS Cup final this weekend, the MLS offseason really hasn't got going yet, and Walker will be hoping to get a chance to move up to the first division if possible and continue to try to realize his huge potential.

Should that chance not come, though, Walker says he's certainly open to returning. He told me that he likes it in Minnesota - "being from California, I never thought I'd say that, but I like Minnesota" - and that returning to the Stars is certainly a possibility. As of now, though, he plans to keep his options open.

In addition to Walker, forwards Martin Nunez and Simone Bracalello (five goals apiece) and Devin Del Do (two goals) are also free agents. As of now, the team has only two forwards - and both are very short on experience. Polak was a late-season signing out of Hastings College, and was used mostly as a substitute to bring some energy on the field at the end of games, while Wall played all of 83 minutes for the Stars in 2012.

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